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Company not obligated to exempt employee from PPE requirement

Safety boots

An employer was unable to reasonably accommodate a worker’s disability because she could not wear the required safety shoes, a federal judge held Monday.

In Holmes v. General Dynamics Mission Systems Inc., U.S. District Judge James Jones in Abingdon, Virginia, dismissed an employee’s claims alleging violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act after she was terminated for being unable to perform the essential functions of her job.

Shelia Holmes suffers from diabetes as well as a disability called brachymetatarsia, which means she has several abnormally short and overlapping toes. She and her physicians said that wearing protective footwear causes friction and ulcers on her feet, which is “very dangerous” because of the diabetes, and can also cause her feet to swell and can create circulation problems, putting her at risk of requiring amputation, according to the complaint.

Ms. Holmes worked for St. Petersburg, Florida-based General Dynamics Ordnance and Tactical Systems Inc. at its manufacturing plant in Marion, Virginia, as a shelter fabricator for approximately 18 years. The company is now owned by Fairfax, Virginia-based General Dynamics Mission Systems Inc., which has assumed the former company’s obligations.

She was often around heavy objects that could fall or roll onto a worker’s feet, and there was also some risk of injury from electrical shocks or sharp objects. Although the job description for shelter fabricators did not include a mention of protective shoes, a job safety analysis in 2013 noted that protective footwear was essential for the position.

In 2003, the company mandated that employees on the production floor wear steel-toed or similar shoes. Ms. Holmes was excused from this requirement based on a note from her doctor. In 2013, however, the company stopped exempting Ms. Holmes from the policy because an outside auditor found violations of the protective footwear policy and stated that future violations could jeopardize the company’s certifications, according to court documents.

The company’s human resources department spoke to several outside vendors to obtain safety shoes or shoe covers for Ms. Holmes, but none of the brands or varieties the company ordered were acceptable to her. In November 2013, the company placed her on an excused absence to allow her to find appropriate shoes, for which it would reimburse her, and also suggested that she seek custom-made safety shoes. However, there is no indication that she pursued that option, according to court documents. Another employee was excused from the shoe requirement because of a hammer toe for a time.

After a more than two-year absence, during which Ms. Holmes’ physician and podiatrist said she could not wear protective shoes, the company terminated her position in June 2016. She filed a complaint against her employer for ADA violations.

Judge Jones dismissed her complaint, holding that the ADA imposed no requirement on an employer to wholly exempt some employees from wearing required safety equipment designed to protect them from serious injury.

General Dynamics argued that because wearing protective footwear was an essential function of the shelter fabricator position, and because wearing tennis shoes was not a reasonable accommodation, that Ms. Holmes could not perform the essential functions of her job.

Although Ms. Holmes argued that she should have the right to accept the risks associated with wearing tennis shoes in a hazardous manufacturing environment, the judge found that General Dynamics had legitimate business reasons for requiring Ms. Holmes to wear safety shoes, noting that exempting her from the requirement could have jeopardized its certification and standing with various organizations and agencies. The judge also noted that had she suffered a foot injury, the company may have been subjected to lost production time and increased workers compensation costs.

As a result, the judge granted General Dynamics’ motion to dismiss her claims.

Ms. Holmes attorney, Richard Hawkins, said he was disappointed with the decision and that he and his client will likely appeal.

General Dynamics’ attorney did not immediately respond to a request for comment.



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